What Happens to Birth Rates During Pandemics?
At first glance, you’d think that staying at home (by law) during the COVID-19 pandemic would mean more babies being born. After all, conception rates are seasonal, with the highest rates occurring during the winter months when we’re all huddled inside. Romance and sex are all about contact time, right?
Turns out, it’s a bit more complicated than that. A pandemic is more than just a long season. It’s a “winter” with a higher death rate, worse unemployment and an economic recession all mixed in. And that has a very different effect on birth rates.
There’s a history surrounding birth rates during pandemics. Large-scale disruptions generally drop fertility rates. During the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-20, the birth rate fell 12.5 percent. That’s one fewer birth for every eight achieved. This was thought to be due to the overall uncertainty about health and life that surrounds a public health crisis and also economic anxiety regarding job security and unemployment.
In public health circles, it’s clear that birth rates are influenced by many types of highly disruptive events, including famines, earthquakes, heatwaves, and diseases. Two of the more recent events associated with decreased U.S. birth rates were the Great Recession of 2008 and Hurricane Katrina.
Not surprisingly, it’s happening again. Research into the COVID-19 pandemic confirms it. A survey of more than 2,000 American women during the COVID-19 pandemic reveals that:
- >40% have completely changed their plans about when to have children or how many children to have
- Another third of women (34%) are considering either postponing pregnancy or having fewer children
That’s a pretty significant chunk of U.S. women with second thoughts about having kids. Throw in a significant economic recession and it is predicted that there will be 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births/year in the U.S. during this pandemic — a decrease of roughly 10%! And this falls squarely on top of a U.S. birth rate that is already at a 30-year low.
Pandemics are brutal for many reasons, not the least of which is that they clip off both ends of the human population spectrum: lethal to the elderly and a big hindrance to baby making.